Lessons Learned from the East Kingdom Gazette

Five years ago, I started the East Kingdom Gazette as an experiment in using a blog and social media to improve communications in the East Kingdom (the Northeast chapter of the SCA, Inc.). Last weekend, I moved from Site Management and Content Editor to a more limited role. This made me introspective about what I’ve learned about the SCA and its communications. Here is a summary of the most important points.

  1. People read about the SCA as if it were a community, not just as a hobby. The articles they care most about are ones with an emotional content, in which we celebrate or grieve. Obituaries are always read widely. In Memoriam: The Calontir Falcons may never lose its place as our most read article because that loss was felt beyond the East. A happier article that has stayed in the top ten is Baron to Knight to Prince in a Day, because it caught people’s imagination in all the right ways.
  2. Politics matter and word choice matters even more. The other most popular subjects are politics and changes to rules. How those posts are written matters. I sometimes pushed for rewrites of submissions from people in positions of authority because what they wrote was open to misinterpretation. In the real world, I’ve written for political campaigns and have some experience with this, so I came from a good place to make the request.  I strongly advice that anyone in the SCA writing a potentially controversial piece get experienced feedback unless they want their inbox to be filled with unhappy emails. The number of emails can be significantly lessened and – more importantly – the SCA made a happier place.
  3. Research has longevity. Articles that contain Arts & Sciences research continue to be read long after they are posted. They are picked up in searches that extend beyond the SCA also. One author was contacted by a Harvard researcher for permission to cite an A&S article we posted.
  4. The SCA and the web have huge visual potential together. The Gazette doesn’t have time to fully take advantage of photos, but when we did the results got wide readership such as with this Coronation piece.
  5. Many people think their projects are not important enough to be publicized. Frequently we got an email with an intro that goes – “I was told to send this but I wasn’t sure if you’d want to post it…” The Gazette doesn’t post self-promotion pieces or advertisements, but there are so many things we would post and aren’t sent to us because people think no one cares. They were usually wrong. People would care.
  6. Both push and pull matter. In other words, use a webpage and social media and email. All have advantages. All get used. Here’s the Gazette’s current stats:
    Followers – 171 via WordPress, 198 via Twitter, 296 via email, 301 via Google+, 2,317 via Facebook.
    Webpage Views – Range from 2,797 – 5,438 per month although they have gone as high as 30,988 in a month.
  7. There will never be enough time to do all the things the Gazette could do. The potential for what we could do with the Gazette has consistently outstripped the available time and personnel.
  8. Expectations have increased in the last five years. People expect more and faster coverage of everything significant now. Often they can get the information from places other than the Gazette, but finding those places depends on knowing the right people. While the Gazette cannot always turn information around as quickly as a private individual, we can make sure our information is accurate and accessible to anyone who wants it. Accessibility is important in a large group like the SCA.
  9. Unofficial makes things easier and harder. The Gazette is not an official publication. This gives us an agility and freedom that official websites don’t have. It also means we are not integrated into the official structure. We can’t have the best of both worlds, but I wish we could because…
  10. As a Society, we can and need to do better. It’s easy to criticize Corporate or a kingdom for what they could do better. I’ve had moments of doing that. Now I mostly have sympathy for the enormity of the task of helping a 50+ year old organization run almost exclusively by volunteers adapt to an online mode of communicating that is not static. If people are interested in helping the SCA adapt, I would strongly suggest that they volunteer to help their local webminister. It’s a more manageable place to start making change, and most activities occur locally. Offer real help, though, and not just helpful suggestions. My response to helpful suggestions for Gazette articles quickly became – “We would post that. Let me know when you’ve written it.”

All of these lessons weren’t something I learned by myself. The Gazette is run by an amazing staff of editors that bring varying opinions and experiences to our discussions. I am deeply grateful to everyone who worked on this project. It could not have happened without all of their time, devotion, and creativity. I look forward to seeing where it goes from here.

Did You Want A Grown-Up Nonprofit?

The SCA distributed a Harassment and Bullying Policy this week. Opinions are flying on the internet as to whether this is a good thing and what it means to the SCA. I know one thing that it means – the SCA is showing signs of growing up, and that’s a good thing. Nitpick the details of the policy if you want, but the fact that this policy now exists is an important step forward.

Sentimentality about what the SCA used to be and idealistic views of how it should be are not how you run a nonprofit. What you do as an individual in the SCA is your hobby and be wistful if you want. However, the SCA is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that supports your hobby. There is a big difference, and it’s something that many people in the SCA do not want to recognize. They like to think about the SCA as if it’s still a party among friends without the need for rules or an organizational structure. It hasn’t been that party for a long time, and people need to stop thinking it is. It’s harmful to the organization’s health and needlessly disillusions individuals.

Even an organization based on chivalry and largely volunteer labor cannot thrive without some of the standard things required by a membership based nonprofit that relies on earned income. They include:
– Timely and comprehensive communication with its members
– Responsive feedback mechanisms
– A method of reviewing the effectiveness of the staff and management
– Support for its regional officers.

The SCA is still struggling with the first three for many reasons that aren’t what this post is discussing. This is about support for its regional officers. Harassment and bullying cannot be tolerated in an organization if it is to be welcoming and successful. In an organization as odd, full of personalities, and hierarchical as the SCA is, this is particularly challenging. I’ve been one of those regional officers. They need real tools that they can use to solve this kind of problem. Sending a peer to talk to a person who is repeatedly inappropriate isn’t a solution. Peer pressure isn’t one either. A policy that backs up an officer is a real tool that they can use no matter who they are or where they live.

Change is a scary thing for many people, but look at it this way. I’ve included two photos of fighters from the beginning of the SCA and now. Imagine someone has been actively fighting for all those fifty years. Their armor has changed due to research, improved skills, and increased expectations. You know what else has changed that you can’t see? Probably their jock strap and cup. If you’re following my analogy here, yes I am comparing the corporation and its policies to a jock strap and cup. They are the not so pretty underthings that support the SCA. What individuals and groups do is the pretty armor.

The resources available to and expectations of a nonprofit have changed, and the SCA is not the same size we were fifty years ago. Time to change the documents that support us and take advantage of modern materials. It’s a lot better than taking a shot to a fifty-year-old cup that’s being held together by duct tape.

Old Fashioned Chocolate Birthday Cake – Gluten and Dairy Free

IMG_20160711_181722547I have a deep love of old fashioned birthday cakes. By old fashioned, I mean cakes that invoke memories of boxed mixes and the old Dominoes’ butter cream frosting recipe that had salt in it. I used to make chocolate infused versions full of dairy and wheat. Now I can’t eat gluten, and some of my kids can’t eat dairy. For years, I didn’t have a birthday cake. Now I do. The omnivores in the family say it’s awfully close to the “real thing”. After all these years, I don’t remember what the “real thing” tasted like, but my kids are painfully honest about food, so I believe them.

This recipe uses the gluten-free flour described here. My husband, who created this recipe, measures by weight, not volume. He uses 280 grams, which is about 2 cups plus 1/4 cup . This recipe makes two a standard 9-inch round two-layer cake or 24 cupcakes. The recipe for the icing is at the bottom.

CHOCOLATE CAKE

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 and 2/3 cups of sugar
  • 2 1/4 cups of flour (280 grams)
  • 2/3 cups of cocoa powder
  • 2 teaspoons of xanthan gum
  • 1 and 1/4 teaspoons of baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon of salt
  • 2/3 cup of dairy-free margarine
  • 3 eggs
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 and 1/3 cup of water

Set the margarine on a counter until it reaches room temperature. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Prep your cake pans or cupcake pans as you prefer. (We use parchment paper for the cake pans and liners for the cupcake pans.)

Whisk the dry ingredients (sugar, flour, cocoa powder, xanthan gum, baking soda, salt) in a bowl until they are evenly mixed.

Mix the wet ingredients EXCEPT the water (margarine, eggs, vanilla) in a bowl and beat with an electric mixer for three minutes. You can’t really cream it (as you can with butter), but get it thoroughly mixed. If you don’t have a mixer, use a fork and really go at it for a couple of minutes.

Add the dry ingredients alternating with the water into the wet ingredients a bit at a time. Use the mixer on low or use a large spoon. Once they are all combined, you will end up with a lovely cake batter.

For 2-layer cake:

  • The batter doesn’t flow as easily as regular batter, so once it is in the pan, you might need to shake it to get it to lay down.
  • Bake for 30 to 35 minutes.  Sometimes this recipe will take more than 35 minutes. Test the cakes with a toothpick until it comes out clean.
  • Let the cakes cool in the pan before you remove them.

For 24 cupcakes:

  • Use a large spoon and measure out equal dollops.
  • Bake for 23 to 25 minutes. Test with a toothpick until it comes out clean.

CHOCOLATE BUTTERCREAM (except not really) FROSTING

INGREDIENTS

  • 1/4 pound dairy-free margarine
  • 4 cups of confectioners sugar
  • 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 4 oz. unsweetened chocolate
  • up to 1/4 cup of water

Set the margarine out on the counter to let it soften. Heat or microwave the unsweetened chocolate until just melted. Use a beater to mix the margarine, confectioners sugar, salt, and vanilla extract in a large bowl. Add the melted chocolate, then add the sugar a little bit at a time. Beat the mixture till smooth.  If you need a smoother consistency, add water until it is reached. Spread on the cake or cupcakes immediately.

 

Dairy Free Chocolate and “Butter” Cream Easter Eggs

IMG_20160326_173914540Buying Easter candy that is safe for people with dairy, nuts, and peanut allergies is hard.  So much chocolate-y or creamy candy isn’t okay. When I was growing up, my favorite Easter candy was the butter creme eggs made by a local church that came in flavors. Last year I had the “duh” moment of realizing that we could make these safely for our kids in vanilla, chocolate and maple.

This recipe is based on a thoroughly unsafe for dairy allergies recipe at The Abundant Wife.  It’s similar to what I ate as a child, and I was grateful to have it to use as a base.  This recipe will make five eggs.  Below are the ingredients for Vanilla, Chocolate and Maple flavors. They are all made using the same process, which is at the bottom of the post.

Vanilla Cream Egg Ingredients

  • 1/2 lb Confectioner’s Sugar
  • 1/8 lb softened non-dairy Margarine (we used Fleischmann’s Unsalted – the Salted has dairy)
  • 1 Tbsp Water
  • 1/2 tsp Vanilla
  • 6 oz non-dairy Chocolate Chips (we use Divvies)

Chocolate Cream Egg Ingredients

  • 1/2 lb Confectioner’s Sugar
  • 1/8 lb softened non-dairy Margarine (we used Fleischmann’s Unsalted – the Salted has dairy)
  • 1 Tbsp Water
  • 1/2 tsp Vanilla
  • 4 Tbsp Cocoa Powder
  • 6 oz non-dairy Chocolate Chips (we use Divvies)

Maple Cream Egg Ingredients

  • 1/2 lb Confectioner’s Sugar
  • 1/8 lb softened non-dairy Margarine (we used Fleischmann’s Unsalted – the Salted has dairy)
  • 2 Tbsp Maple Syrup
  • 6 oz non-dairy Chocolate Chips (we use Divvies)

 

Directions

IMG_20160326_180118036_HDRIn a bowl, mix the sugar into the softened margarine, as well as any additional ingredients except the chocolate chips. Mix until a consistency that can be molded into eggs.  Place in the refrigerator to cool.

In a double boiler, melt the chocolate chips.  At this point you have two choices.IMG_20160326_181359094

  • If you want, you can simply cover the filling with chocolate by pouring it on one side, chilling it, flipping it over, and chilling it again.
  • If you want fancier eggs, get a silicon mold in the shape of eggs.  We use this one. Paint the interior of the molds generously with chocolate using a brush. You want a strong shell. Insert the filling gently while the chocolate is soft. Chill in the fridge.  IMG_20160326_165022728Once the chocolate is solid, remove the half eggs and place back in the fridge.  Wash the mold and paint generously again with chocolate.  Insert the half eggs into the molds and press very gently to create a seal. Chill in the fridge until the chocolate in the mold is solid and the eggs can be safely removed.

If you want, you can decorate the eggs.  Otherwise, just eat and enjoy.

Passion vs. Skills in a Nonprofit

IMG_20160315_114427Recently I listened to a kerfuffle about how much money a nonprofit needed. The organization is pretty stripped down and runs on minimal staffing with maximum volunteer labor. Some members argued the organization could run on almost all volunteer labor and a smaller budget if it restructured. The comments reminded me of a break-out session at a conference I attended.

The session was filled with development staff for arts organizations. Most of them were young, dewy eyed, and barely making a living wage probably. A couple of us old wizened types were in the room. The moderator asked which was more important in the fundraising work – passion or skills. All the young ones raised their hands for passion. Us oldsters raised our hands for skills.

Saying that a nonprofit can get by on passion or volunteers is a bit like a couple telling each other they can live on love. If times are good and luck goes their way, they might survive. They might even thrive. If not, then the couple is going to have problems and so is the organization.

This perception that an organization should be able to get by on less seems to be particularly strong in small nonprofits that rely heavily on volunteer labor. Often these nonprofits were started by all volunteers or had one underpaid maniacal person who did much of the work. That may not be a sustainable model. Here’s some reasons why.

  • Fatigue – While an idea is fresh and the passion is new, people rally around a cause. Eventually many of the people doing the hard work wear out, move on, or even pass away. Alternatively, the organization may grow too large for the volunteers to manage without exhausting themselves. At this point the organization needs more competent volunteers and may not get them because of…
  • Half Solved Problems – A nonprofit exists to solve problems or meet needs. If the initial flurry of activity solved the need or problem permanently, that’s great. But what if it was only solved partway or maintenance is needed for it to stay solved? A half solved problem isn’t as obvious or compelling as the unsolved one. The organization will get less donors, attract fewer volunteers, and lose momentum. A solution exists, but it won’t be found without…
  • Strategic Planning – Determining a course to re-energize a nonprofit can be complicated. The clear vision of the need and how to address it that started the organization has morphed with time and half solved problems. Someone has to decide the steps to take to best service the clientele. In order to do this, that someone needs to have…
  • Experience – Anyone can run a small nonprofit, right? Just look at the PTO at your neighborhood school. That would be the same PTO that is alternately reviled and adored by parents as a horrible clique, overstepping beggars, and saintly volunteers. Running a serious nonprofit – no matter what the size – requires management, financial, and visionary skills. If an organization is going to be fast and flexible in response to whatever gets thrown its way, then it needs someone who has the power to make decisions. Finding that person requires…
  • Money – We no longer live in an era filled with single wage earner families and a wildly competent spouse who is desperate to fill their time with good works. Wildly competent people expect to be paid for their work. Furthermore, a volunteer can shuffle a job to one side if life gets complicated. Management by a committee of volunteers is a great way to have an organization move slowly. A paid staff person must make the work a priority. If you want a responsive leader with skills, you need to pay for them.

There are exceptions. Some nonprofits can get by without paid staff. Maybe they only run one large event per year, and it is so high profile that volunteers flock to the group. Maybe there is a constant turnover of enthusiastic volunteers like an elementary school PTO. But what about the other nonprofits?

In general, nonprofit work is a long slog through scrambling for funding, grumpy people, and impossible situations to solve with inadequate resources. When the number of nonprofits went up exponentially compared to the available funding, that slog got harder. A decently paid and large enough staff enables an organization to make a plan, execute it, and communicate with their clientele. A happier clientele means more support for the organization. It’s cyclical. Without one, it is hard to have the other.

Staff and operating expenses are incredibly unsexy overhead items. They’re hard to get funding to support. To many people, staff time and operating expenses appear as unnecessary as whatever the Wizard was doing behind the curtain in the Emerald City. The Wizard may have been pulling a fast one over the denizens of Oz, but nonprofits are not. Passion alone is not sustainable or effective. Nonprofits require skilled staff if they are to thrive.

 

Not My Strawberry Bread & Lemon Brownies

There are two deserts we make that people adore and we didn’t invent. We simply adapted recipes on the web so they would be gluten free and dairy free.  Moister deserts, especially ones with fruit as a main component, frequently adapt well. I’m including the links with tweaks here.  So everyone who wants to know how to make these – here you go.

Lemon Brownies – We make two changes to this recipe.  The first is that I use our gluten-free soy/corn/tapioca flour.  The other is using Fleischmann’s Unsalted Margarine instead of butter.  (Pick carefully – their salted margarine has dairy.) Remember that margarine starts out softer than butter, so keep an eye on it when you set it out to soften.  Don’t let it get too soft.  The directions on this recipe are spectacular, and I advise reading them carefully.

Strawberry Bread – The major change to this recipe is substituting in our gluten-free soy/corn/tapioca flour.  It also works with our oat based flour. For oil, we use canola.  We don’t add the nuts, because we’re a nut-free household.  If you can eat them, I’m sure they’re a lovely addition.  The recipe is very simple, and it really is as easy as it reads.  If you like apples, a friend experimented and discovered that it works nicely with moister apples like McIntosh.

More recipes can be found here

Blueberry Muffins – Gluten Free, Dairy Free, Nut Free

IMG_3284Baking muffins started as a weekend tradition because of my children with food allergies.  It was too hard to find muffins free of cross contamination in a store.  When I had to go gluten free, I figured my days of sharing in that tradition were done.  However, my husband came up with a recipe that tastes – and just as importantly – feels like an excellent blueberry muffin.

 

Ingredients

  • 3/4 cup (or 105 grams) gluten free flour
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • IMG_32701 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp xanthan gum
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1 egg
  • 3 Tbsp canola oil
  • 1 Tbsp honey
  • 1/2 cup blueberries

IMG_3273Preheat the over to 350 degrees.  Mix the dry ingredients together in a medium sized bowl.  Beat the wet ingredients together in their own bowl until well combined. Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and stir until smooth. The batter does not act like gluten muffin batter.  This photo shows how it should look.

IMG_3281Fold the blueberries into the batter. Line a muffin pan with paper liners.  Drop the batter into the liners until it reaches the top.  Do not smooth the batter down.  Bake for 22 – 26 minutes They are done when a toothpick comes out cleanly.

More recipes can be found here.

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